Filmmakers Francesca Gregorini and Tatiana von Furstenberg are giggling like schoolgirls, which is appropriate, seeing as their debut feature together, Tanner Hall—which they wrote and directed—is a coming-of-age tale set in an all-girls boarding school in New England.
Like the girls in their movie, Gregorini and von Furstenberg have an adoring (“We live to impress each other,” Gregorni says) and familiar short-hand with another. They finish each other’s sentences, prop each other up, tweak each other’s memories. Like right now, as von Furstenberg—who has long, brown, curly-Q tresses and wide-set eyes that sparkle with mischief—is recalling her own coming-of-age tale at a boarding school in England.
“It’s a joke now, because I’m almost 40—I mean, I’m 38. I’m not a siren anymore, but in [ Tanner Hall] I’m mining my own adolescent experience, and I can honestly say that the second I realized the power of my sexuality, I mean, even though I didn’t really do anything about it… it was the most fun game I’d ever played.”
“I can vouch, she still plays this game from time to time,” says Gregorini, who has a thin, angular face, a waterfall of thick, dark hair, and smoky eyes that offset her glittery gold jewelry.
“Sometimes,” von Furstenberg clarifies. “But not with as much—”
“Abandon,” Gregorini interjects.
The women are sitting in the bar of the Hazelton Hotel in Toronto, the day after Tanner Hall—which was seeking distribution at the festival—had its premiere. Von Furstenberg is wearing a pale gray, off-the-shoulder dress and tall, brown boots. She curled up in her chair like a cat. From time to time, when a story gets her especially excited, she reaches over and puts her hand over Gregorini’s, her BFF since they were students together at Brown.
The women are no strangers to the spotlight. Von Furstenberg is the daughter of fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg, and Gregorini—the daughter of Bond girl Barbara Bach, and step-daughter of Ringo Starr—made gossip magazine headlines when she was linked with actress Portia De Rossi. But it was their longstanding friendship that inspired their filmmaking debut. After college, “we went and had our own lives, but the one thing that has always been true is that we hang out and see each other and talk on the phone,” says von Furstenberg, who has done everything from working as a reporter for the New York Daily News to opening up a clothing store in Los Angeles (with Gregorini), singing in a band, and working on a degree in psychology, which she’s doing now.
“And trade stories,” says Gregorini, who moved L.A. to pursue screenwriting after graduation. “ Tanner Hall started specifically one day when Tatiana was talking to me, she loved to play this game called Comero—it’s ‘How I Was,’ in broken Italian. She likes to tell me tales of her past life, from before I knew her, just in case this last 15 years wasn’t enough,” she jokes.
“Once I get started, I really don’t stop. It’s impossible to stop me!” von Furstenberg squeals. “And I’ll embellish.”
“So we were walking the dogs,” Gregorini says, “and she was telling me one of her tales at boarding school. And I had gone into script-writing at this point, I’d sold a script. And I thought, ‘How great. We should write a script together and put all this time we spend together to good use.’ And that weekend, we went to a hotel, checked in, and basically, in that weekend, we mapped out more or less the beats of Tanner Hall, then spent several months thereafter fleshing it out.”
After attracting producers with their script, Gregorini and von Furstenberg worked quickly, scouting locations in Rhode Island, casting actors—including Amy Sedaris, as the school’s frumpy, out-of-touch principal and Chris Kattan as a sexually frustrated teacher—and shooting the film all within three months. Von Furstenberg uprooted her 9-year-old daughter from Los Angeles and enrolled her in school in Providence. (Mother also gave daughter a small part in the film.)
As for how much material the women drew from their own lives in the film—a sweet, honest, and often funny look at girls exploring forbidden freedoms (the film’s lead character, Fern (Ronney Mara), falls in love with a married man)—von Furstenberg says, “I would say the situations are not so much autobiographical, because we had to have conflict and high drama—I mean, none of those things really happened. But I would say, the awakenings—absolutely.”
Another piece of nonfiction is the schoolgirls’ flirtations with male superiors. “The torture of the teachers,” von Furstenberg says, rolling her eyes. “My Spanish teacher… He wasn’t cute at all, but he was so hungry for me, it was insane!”
She curls her mouth up into a Cheshire cat grin and says, “You know those uniforms with the buttons in the back? Deliberately leaving those buttons open? Of course! You’re dying for him to see.”
“I used to be so naughty,” she sighs and shakes her head.
Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former film reporter for Variety, she has also written for The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, The New York Times, The New York Observer, and W.